Video calling for special occasions

We’ve already seen how important video calling can be in our day-to-day lives. We’ve looked at how people who live, work or have loved-ones overseas use it to connect and how others use video calling in education.

Today in our Skype Up Your Life week on Pocket-lint, we look at something more specialised because Skype isn’t just for the everyday. Sometimes you need video calling for a special occasion, be they happy, or be they sad.

Monique Macfarlane, virtual Christmas

Plymouth, in the south-west of Britain, is a long way from Tauranga, New Zealand. It’s 11,500 miles away. In fact, if you poked a very long hole from Plymouth through the centre of the Earth and out the other side of the crust, Tauranga is pretty much the place it would end up. And so it was that photography student Monique Macfarlane found herself on the other side of the planet from her family last Christmas in her first, cold, Northern Hemisphere winter.

Sharing a student house in Plymouth, there wasn’t a lot going on in the way of festive cheer until a huge box arrived on Monique’s doorstep filled with presents from her family and friends.

“It just didn’t seem right to open them,” explains Monique. “So, we arranged a time for me to call home. Because of the 13-hour difference, I was sitting here at 9am on the 24th and it was 10pm in New Zealand. It wasn’t quite legit Christmas but that was the best that we could do.”

So Monique got to do Christmas - gifts and all - with her family in New Zealand, if only for an hour or so.

“It was quite an odd sensation. I was sitting with my mum and brother and his girlfriend and my mum's partner. I opened the presents and they watched and got to see my reaction which was quite funny. And after I’d done that, I watched my mum open her present that I’d organised to send to my brother to give to her and vice versa.”

The Christmas scene was nearly complete as other relatives arrived at the door in New Zealand to get in on the call with Monique. In fact, all that was missing was a tree positioned carefully in the background and sitting a laptop at the table for a turkey dinner. So, did it help beat the homesick blues?

“It did feel much more like Christmas, but it still wasn’t Christmas. It felt like August to me - cold and dark with lots of uni work - I’m used to sunshine in December.”

While Monique isn’t necessarily planning another Christmas Day away - her course is a one-year Masters - there is another special-occasion hurdle she’ll have to get over.

“There’s a boy back home in New Zealand,” she confesses, “and it’s Valentine’s Day coming up. I’m trying to see what I can do with him. We always like to eat curry and drink a lot of red wine together, so we might try a virtual dinner date.”

While the practicalities of just how one would enjoy and prepare a meal like that might be the first thing one would naturally start thinking about, there is the big issue of the time difference.

“To be on the same time, it will be at night on his time and morning on my time. So, it might involve me having to drink red wine and have curry for breakfast which I’m not sure I want to do.”

Unsurprisingly, Monique spends a fair amount of time Skyping back home - twice a week to her mum, once a week to her dad, to her brother and even to her cat. As convenient as that is, it does have its drawbacks.

“In some ways, it’s quite hard because I have this duality of life. Because of Skype, I feel like I have to maintain two lives. I have my friends here and my friends at home and it’s like I never left. I try to fully immerse myself here but there’s always a bit of me that’s still home. On the one hand, Skype is amazing but, on the other, it's difficult."

The point is most painfully driven home when it comes to Monique’s boyfriend, Chris.

“This is my current hug,” she demonstrates raising her arms to the webcam. “It doesn’t really cut it when you want a real hug. So, Skype, maybe you can work on that for me.”

Virtual funeral attendance

There was one final thing that Monique Macfarlane told us of as we finished talking to her from her Plymouth address. As said, her native Tauranga is a long way from Cornwall; around two days’ travel, so we’re told. What’s more, it’s the kind of last-minute travel money that’s probably not that easy to come by for a student. So, what would happen in the case of a tragic event?

“I had to have a hard conversation with my parents about what we’d do if anything happened to one of my grandparents while I was over here," Monique says. "I’d want to come home but my parents didn’t really want me to do that. So, we came to an arrangement that if something did happen, then they would have me on Skype throughout the whole funeral so that I could be there as much as would be possible.”

A video conferenced funeral, it turns out, is not as unusual as it might sound. In fact, it’s a service that many funeral homes have been offering for a while now. Skype has become another technological optional extra that can be part of a modern-day passing of someone’s life. Some funeral businesses offer a live stream via a webcam placed in the corner of the room. Some offer a recording of the service to be made on DVD and posted out to those who can’t make it, but it’s the Skype funeral that seems to give the richest "there but not there" experience.

It seems that it’s not just a case tuning in for the key part of the proceedings either. Alison Quinn, a Canadian-born teacher in Helsinki talks of her experience as a Skype attendee at her grandfather’s funeral in a touching blog post on her site. She was carried around on a laptop where she could talk and listen to the other friends and relatives before and after the service and it really seemed to have made all the difference.

She says: “It was the next best thing to actually being there. I could not only hear all the familiar voices, but I could see all the familiar faces too! I could hear the sniffles and sobs during the prayers, the laughter and the murmurs of agreements during the eulogies.”

Quinn herself had pre-recorded a eulogy that was played back when the time came, but there’s no reason why someone couldn’t also delivery some touching words over Skype too. Indeed, Berkowitz-Kumin-Bookatz funeral home in Cleveland, USA, has installed cameras, projectors and screens for the purpose. In a global society with many of us having relatives overseas, it’s good to see a such a traditional business embracing technology quite so openly and sensibly.

"My job is to tell you the choices you have," says funeral director Michael Kumin to anyone sceptical. "You become the funeral director. You're directing the funeral. There's no right way or wrong way.”

Skype the birth of your child

As special occasions go, the birth of a child has to rank right at the top. So when Corporal Greg Bacon learnt he was going to miss his baby being born because if a posting overseas, he turned to Skype.

“When I found out that I was leaving and wasn’t going to be there, it was kind of nerve-racking that she was going to go through this alone.” says Greg

His wife Gina decided to do something about it; she used a laptop with Skype and a webcam to show her C-section operation to her husband. He offered reassurance and a calming demeanour over Skype to the operating theatre all the way from the Middle East.

Watching a Caesarean birth over Skype isn’t everyone’s idea of fun, but when it's the birth of your own child, you don’t want to miss any of the details.

“This is better than nothing and a lot of other soldiers don’t know about this. I am really grateful that I have been able to do this.” Greg explains.

His wife adds: “It is our firstborn child and he is missing out on a lot by being away. This way he still gets to see and be a part of everything.”

During the operation one of the surgical staff held a laptop up with a video feed. Greg’s face could be seen by Gina and vice versa. The staff even got involved trying to give the impression he was there in the room.

“Here I will hold your hand, it will be like Greg holding your hand,” says a woman dressed in scrubs.

“There’s your baby boy,” says another of the staff, holding the child up to the laptop screen. They even show Greg the baby while its umbilical cord is cut.

“It was very reassuring just to hear his voice even though he didn’t get to hold my hand or anything like that,” says Gina.

Her husband adds: “I am just happy that my son is here finally, I can’t wait to meet him.”



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